Beautiful Hair

June 13, 2011

Gracious Living Day by DayMy grandmother, on my father’s side, was a formidable woman.

Under the shady oak Under the shady oak

She was tall, loud, gregarious, temperamental, fearless.

She played many roles in her village. She was the village nurse, midwife, undertaker, planner and organizer. Men and women sought her council.

Grandmother Mara (she and my mother shared the same first name) bore thirteen children, only five of whom survived into adulthood.

During WW II, while my grandfather fought with the partisans,  grandmother was detained at the most infamous concentration camp in Croatia, Jasenovac. She was pregnant with my uncle at the time. Just before he was born, grandmother was released in a tradeoff between prisoners.

She set the standard for beauty that all the women in our family still try to measure up to. To hear that one resembles grandmother Mara is the highest compliment one can  receive.

She and I were as different as two people could be.

During my early childhood, I was afraid of her booming voice, sudden sparks of fury and her temperamental nature.

She and my sister looked like each other, understood each other, loved each other. I preferred my other grandmother, my mother’s mother, who was quiet, sweet and nonthreatening.

Years passed and left bottomless traces of suffering on my grandmother’s body. Her face became deeply lined. She lost most of her teeth. She became overweight and had trouble walking. She had a bad heart.

But her mind was sharp and clear, and the sparks of that unpredictable temper still flew like firecrackers – when one cared to pay attention.

The summer I graduated from college, like most summers, I traveled from New York to Yugoslavia. I was starting graduate school in the fall, but that summer I was careless and at ease, full of  ethereal dreams for the future.

Carried along on a whirlwind of youthful pastimes, energy and excitement, I hardly said a word to my grandmother Mara.

She was a constant presence in our family’s large, shady yard. Sitting in her wooden chair under the tall oak tree, she looked old, lined, frail and sick.

She was part of the ancient landscape.

One hot afternoon, I took my book and a blanket and settled down to read under the shady oak. Grandmother was dozing nearby in her chair.

She opened her eyes wide as soon as she felt my presence and called me over to her. I reluctantly complied.

“Would you be willing to brush my hair?” she asked. “I haven’t washed it for a while and it’s so itchy in this heat.”

I didn’t want to brush her hair. I didn’t want to touch her hair. Her hair seemed to me oily and stale, I immediately knew she didn’t know about the essential oils good for hair growth.

I said I would brush her hair.

I went inside and found my grandmother’s carved old brush, then took her kerchief off and released her hair from the bun.

Her hair was thick, long and dark, hardly streaked with gray. I made slow strokes with the hairbrush, afraid to pull on the tangles.

My grandmother sighed, then started to hum a familiar melody to an old song.

Her hair was oily and stale, but it was also strong, silky to the touch, striking and beautiful. It was the kind of hair I always wished I had.

“Grandma, can I wash your hair?” I asked.

“If only you would,” she replied.

I ran inside, brought out a basin full of warm water and placed it on the farm table next to her chair. I carried out towels, shampoo, conditioner.

I pulled grandmother’s chair closer to the table, draped her shoulders with a soft towel, tilted her head back and dipped her hair into the water.

I washed it for a long time.

Grandma softly sang one song after another.

I let conditioner sit in her hair while I emptied the basin and fetched fresh water for rinsing.

I rinsed her hair with clean warm water, the strands silky, smooth and luxurious.

After I dried and brushed it smooth, grandmother handed me her combs so I could braid her hair into a bun.

“Why don’t you leave it loose until it dries, grandma?”

She smiled and took my hand, while I sat down next to her.

We sat for a long time under that shady oak, her hair loose and flowing.

When she started the melody to the next song, I joined in.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikolette Jakovac June 17, 2011 at 8:39 am

It’s true — Joe Holtzman said he could see and feel every detail in the story. Yet — I sent the story to my friend because I knew she’d like it. She really did and then added, “I wish she had included a photo of her grandmother.” Does one exist?


Liliana June 17, 2011 at 8:49 am

thank you for your kind words.

I agree with your friend that a photo of my grandmother would have helped illustrate the story better. But I don’t have one here in the US. I have written to my cousin in Serbia to ask her to send me one. Once she does, I will write about my grandmother again and include the picture.
Best to you.
Mnogo pozdrava,


Joe Holtzman June 14, 2011 at 7:40 pm

This is a really vivid story, LJ. Nicely done. I could see and feel every detail in it. Keep it up!


Helen Mac June 13, 2011 at 8:26 pm

P.S. I just saw Jeff’s comment and remembered how my grandfather who frightened my youngest sister would allow me to comb his wavy hair as he sat reading the newspaper and I stood behind his chair. My grandmother was in the kitchen and when I stopped and came to be with her she exclaimed how I must be the only one he would allow to do such a thing!


Liliana June 14, 2011 at 6:48 am

It makes me very happy that my reminiscences reminded you of your own grandfather.
Stories are like that – they wake in us sleeping memories.
Best to you, Helen.


Helen Mac June 13, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Liliana, such a precious memory and so well-told. Wonderful that you experienced her gentle side as well as her furies.
Have you read the new novel The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht?


Liliana June 14, 2011 at 6:46 am

I have not read The Tiger’s Wife, but have heard wonderful things about it. I will definitively read it.
I read a short piece that Tea Obreht wrote for the New Yorker about her childhood memories. Although we a generation apart (she is my son’s age) I recognize the spirit of the country we both grew up in. She is a writer to watch.


Jeff June 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Lovely story. Funny how it brings up my own memories of brushing my father’s hair. His was thick and coarse and he always kept it cut short. But there were times when I would climb up behind him on the big soft chair he sat in, and while he watched the television, I would brush his hair back. It was so thick that each stroke pulled at both his hair and his head. He never said a word and just let me continue brushing – just a father enjoying the company of his son.

I guess that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? 🙂

– Jeff


Liliana June 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Exactly! It’s those precious little moments that life is made up of.


Maria Dungler June 13, 2011 at 8:56 am

Liliana, you write so well and so sweetly. This is a wonderful little story.


John June 13, 2011 at 8:06 am

Lovely reminiscence. Thank you.


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